INDEPENDENCE — LeBron James has mastered the first-round knockout.
Better protect those chins, Pacers.
One of the most dominant postseason players in NBA history, James is undefeated in Game 1 of any opening series, a perfect 12-0 since making his playoff debut with the Cavaliers back in 2006.
James is a ridiculous 48-7 overall in the first round with seven sweeps, and his teams in Miami and Cleveland have ripped off 21 consecutive opening-round victories, a winning streak that stretches to 2012 in his second season with the Heat. Since rejoining the Cavs in 2015, he’s 12-0 in Round 1.
Facing him means an early exit.
But while all those overbearing facts would seem to give Cleveland a huge advantage against Indiana in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference series that starts Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena, James isn’t taking the Pacers lightly. They beat the Cavs three times during the regular season and guard Victor Oladipo and Co. have enough talent to maybe upset the No. 4 seed.
“It’s going to be a very good matchup,” James said Saturday. “It’s 4-5 for a reason. Both teams played good ball at times throughout the regular season. Obviously their season, from the outside looking in, was more productive than ours because of what they went through in the offseason. But we went through a lot in the offseason as well. It’s a good matchup and we look forward to the challenge.”
Following a regular season that went up, down and sideways for the Cavs, the postseason has finally arrived. It’s when James shines most.
The 33-year-old is aiming to make his eighth straight Finals, a feat only accomplished by a handful of Boston Celtics in the 1960s. The three-time champ is coming off perhaps his finest regular season, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be at his best in April, May and probably June.
“LeBron is a freak of his own,” said Oladipo, who has blossomed in his first year with Indiana. “He’s the best player in the world. You could give it (the MVP award) to him every year, but it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.”
James wasn’t fair to the Pacers in last year’s playoffs. He averaged 32 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks as Cleveland swept Indiana en route to a third straight conference crown.
It’s hard to imagine it being that easy this year as the Pacers are a more well-balanced squad. In Oladipo they have a player capable of taking over a game, but James knows the ropes better than anyone this time of year.
“He definitely understands that, going to The Finals, that the quicker you can get a series over and get some rest is the best way to do it,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “So our guys have to understand that we’re going to see the best (team) at their best.”
His teammates and opponents may change from year to year in the postseason. James stays the same.
“My responsibility has been the same for quite a while now,” he said. “Go out and try to dominate.”
For the first time in four years, James won’t have Kyrie Irving by his side in the playoffs. With Irving gone, Kevin Love has become Cleveland’s second-most important player.
Although the Cavs aren’t the slam-dunk favorite as they’ve been in the past to win the East, Love is as confident as ever.
“I always feel like when we take the floor we’re going to win every game,” he said. “I feel like we’re a really tough out. We’re going to be a tough team to beat in four games and we have the best player in the world and a lot of guys that are hungry to go out and prove what they can do.”
Myles to go
Pacers big man Myles Turner struggled so badly down the stretch he asked McMillan to play him in the regular-season finale. It didn’t help.
Turner’s struggles continued as he went 1 of 8 from the field and finished with two points in 20 minutes. Turner is now 5 of 26 overall, 0 for 9 on 3-pointers. He had 11 rebounds in Indiana’s last four games. He’s grateful for a fresh start.
“They need me to come out and be the aggressive Myles, like I’ve done during a couple stretches this season,” he said. “I need to score points, rebound and block shots.”
Lance Stephenson developed a reputation for getting under James’ skin during the Pacers-Heat rivalry. He’s still doing it.
Stephenson, perhaps best known for blowing in James’ ear during the 2014 conference finals, baited James into a technical foul earlier this year. This time, though, Stephenson claims he has no plans to rankle King James.
“He’s a tough player, he’s always challenging me,” Stephenson said. “I think your mindset has to be to stop him and to want to win against him. Everybody in the league wants to beat him.”